Outreach Program Rooted in Patriotism
By 1st Lt. Steve Alvarez, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2003 Army Sgt. 1st Class Caron Whitby likes talking to young people. The Californian and former drill sergeant has helped shape and prepare hundreds of soldiers for Army life, and many are likely serving in hot spots all over the globe.
Army Sgt.1st Class Caron Whitby works at her desk at the Pentagon. Whitby is one of many military members who have volunteered to be a part of the Defend America outreach program. Photo by 1st Lt. Steve Alvarez
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
These days, her mission and message are slightly different. While still addressing a youthful group, the 17-year veteran's topics are not military customs and courtesies, the chain of command, or parade and ceremonies. Instead, her messages focus on patriotism and the current war on terror as she addressed approximately 2,200 high school students near Chicago last week.
"I had heard about this program through Defend America and I learned that people were going out and speaking," Whitby said. "I specifically wanted to speak to kids, young people of high school and college age," she added.
Whitby, the enlisted military assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, is part of the Defend America program, DoD's grassroots public outreach effort that places service members and civilian employees in speaking forums across the country. The program was born shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"DoD was looking for a way to get the message out to the American people as best we could: that DoD is still here, the Pentagon is still functioning, we are going to take the fight to the terrorists we will prevail," said David E. Evans, a community relations and public liaison specialist with the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
"Defend America, in its simplest terms, is another way of doing a speakers bureau," Evans said. DoD took the existing speakers bureau program and broadened it to include the war on terror and broadened the delivery method to include junior service members, both officer and enlisted.
Whitby said she thanked veterans for "all they've done for us" in her first Veterans Day speech, one of two scheduled for the day. "I also talked about not forgetting the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The kids were very knowledgeable. Surprisingly, they knew a lot about what was going on."
In the past two years, the Defend America outreach program has been responsible for thousands of speeches nationwide. Over the July 4 weekend, for example, more than 2,000 outreach speeches took place across the country.
"It's been a great success," Evans said. "We used the Defend America program and its successes to help put together what became known as the Operation Tribute to Freedom program, which is in fact, another supercharged speakers program."
Operation Tribute to Freedom, the nationwide effort that started Memorial Day 2003, provides service members who speak about their experiences in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"It's more to put a face with the military to get these young men and women out there so the American people can say, 'These are our sons and daughters,'" Evans said. "These are real people, doing real jobs."
Whitby ensured that the young men and women in the crowd at her speaking engagements knew what sacrifices were being made on their behalf. She tried to make the sacrifices very real.
"I talked about the freedoms that we enjoy because of our veterans," Whitby said about her second speaking engagement. "That's what this program is about."
However, Whitby said that once students found out she had served as a drill instructor, the questions got personal. "They asked me, 'What's it like to be in the Army? What's it like to be a drill instructor?' Was I mean? Was I nice? 'How many push-ups can you do?'" Whitby said. "It was great."
Defend America also gets requests from groups who visit the Washington area. Evans said that ordinarily a speaker is assigned to the group and once the speaker delivers the briefing, a tour of the Pentagon is sometimes provided.
"The American public truly wants to do something for service members," Evans said, and sometimes, their efforts go beyond hosting speaking engagements.
In November, a Baltimore woman whose son was deployed contacted Evans. She wanted to "help out," Evans said, by inviting three families of deployed service personnel to her house for Thanksgiving dinner.
"She wanted us to help find these families," Evans said. He later put her in touch with a local military installation's family services center.
From California, a few months ago, a man called and said he had eight digital jukeboxes that he wanted to donate. "'Do you think the Navy wants them?'" Evans recalled the man asking. The music machines were placed in public areas on several ships for all sailors to enjoy.
"This is everyday we go through this," Evans said about American generosity. "It is phenomenal to watch this going on."
Whitby was enthusiastic about her experiences as a Defense Department ambassador. "We talked about Iraq, 9/11, Afghanistan, and that's part of what this program is about letting people know why we're doing what we're doing," Whitby said. "It shows the community we're user-friendly. We're out there to help."
This was Whitby's first time speaking as a Defend America representative. The program sent Whitby, who volunteered to work a day that would ordinarily have been a holiday for her, on temporary duty to Illinois.
"I'm ready to go back out," Whitby said. "I want to represent DoD and show that there are good people in the military and we have good things to say."
Audiences are not the only ones who benefit from the program. At one of her Veterans Day events in Illinois, Whitby got to hear Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient Alan Lynch speak to the students. It made an impact.
"He was awesome. It was an honor to meet him. He was so humble," Whitby said. "He didn't talk about himself, he talked about the veterans and thanked them."
But one part of Lynch's speech stands out for Whitbywhen he challenged the students to protect freedom. "He said, 'Now it's your turn. Are you going to take care of us?' He renewed my spirit and encouraged me," Whitby said.
Military personnel interested in volunteering for the Defend America outreach program, or groups interested in hosting a Defend America speaker should contact Eric Holland at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org or (703) 697-7385.
(1st Lt. Steve Alvarez is an Army reservist working for DefendAmerica.mil.)